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February 27, 2013   Email to Friend 

Melissa Martin
(334) 612-5448
February 27, 2013

Clockwise from left:
North Alabama Horticultural Research Center Director Arnold Caylor, sitting, demonstrates how a piece of equipment works during the delegates' tour of his facility.

Delegates look on as Caylor further explains how equipment is beneficial to Alabama agriculture.

The eight delegates who participated in the 2013 Cochran Fellowship Program were from the Republic of Georgia, located on Russia's southern border between the Black and Caspian Seas.

Alabama farmers routinely share tips, techniques and should've-done-this-instead moments with their agricultural counterparts. A bit rarer of occurrences, however, involves sharing those same stories with people who don't speak English.

From Feb. 5-7, eight delegates from the Republic of Georgia explored a variety of farms and research centers in North Alabama as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Cochran Fellowship Program. Their purpose? Improve their local agricultural systems. Though it's more than 6,000 miles from their farms in Tbilisi to Auburn where their Alabama journey began, one element helped bridge the gap between the two very different worlds — a passion for agriculture. 

“Like any other country, we encounter problems we have to learn to solve... financial, social, and agricultural,” said USDA representative and native Georgian Demna Dzirkvadze, who served as translator. “We have comparable mechanization, and we grow some of the things farmers here grow, but we have low productivity and yields per hectare [approximately 2.47 acres]. We hope to learn some new techniques to increase yields and profitability. No-till practices seen at [the North Alabama Horticultural Research Center] could be useful in the fields of Tbilisi.” 

Dzirkvadze noted the Republic of Georgia — located on Russia's southern border between the Black and Caspian Seas — has liberal regulations compared to the U.S., but said farmers still work hard to produce the best food they can.

"Our families need food for nourishment, just as American families do," Dzirkvadze remarked. "We have less government control, but our practices are safe for our people."

Cullman County Farmers Federation President Phillip Garrison, who met with the delegates during their three-day tour, said he was pleased to be involved with the Cochran Fellowship program.

“I think it’s good for us to express our experiences to other people, where they can learn more about what we do here, how we do it, and how much it means to us to be a farmer,” said Garrison, whose county Federation sponsored the Georgians’ welcome luncheon Feb. 5. “I’m sure it means just as much to them to be a farmer. I’m thankful to be able to share our stories with these gentlemen and hope they can learn something from their experiences here in North Alabama.”

Delegates, whose ages ranged from 25 to 54, included Mamuka Merebashvili, Zaal Akhalkatsi, Otar Sabashvili, Revaz Janelidze, Irakli Merkvilishvili, George Blbulashvili, Nikolz Gavtadze and Goga Turashvili. Though each participant had his own level of experience, all shared a background in fruit and vegetable production, which was a key focus of their Alabama trip. 

During the first day of tours, delegates travelled from Auburn to the Cullman County Extension Office. Following lunch with Extension agents and staff, they met with North Alabama Horticultural Research Center Director Arnold Caylor and received hands-on training with no-till vegetable equipment. The latter part of the day included a tour of the North Alabama Food Bank; Noel Brown's row crop and vegetable farm in New Market; and Bill Mullins' farm in Meridianville, where they explored his honey and fruit operation.

On Feb. 6, the Georgian delegates visited the Alabama Space and Rocket Center, travelled to Isom's Orchards in Athens and toured the Alabama Farmers Cooperative (AFC) Headquarters in Decatur. Following lunch at AFC, they spent the afternoon exploring Jeremy Calvert's farm in Bremen and Haynes Farm in Cullman.

Calvert, who serves as Birmingham Farmers Market president and State Horticulture Committee, operates a fruit, vegetable and poultry farm. He said while some may criticize the program, there’s a benefit to engaging with other farmers from around the world. 

“It’s definitely a good thing they're here,” Calvert said. “Who knows? We might learn something from them… after a little translating.”

The final day of tours included stops at Federer Fertilizer Inc., Witt Farm/Triple J Nursery in Hayden and the Birmingham Farmers Market.

Since its inception in 1984, the Cochran Fellowship Program has provided training for more than 14,300 participants from 123 countries — many of whom have received their training in the Yellowhammer State. The 2013 Cochran Fellows were selected to come to Alabama following a competitive bid process initiated by Auburn University.

For more information, visit http://www.fas.usda.gov/icd/cochran/cochran.asp.

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